OPERATION MBI SHAME
On Oct. 19, just as affairs were winding down at the Orlando Weekly Job Fair on the second floor of the Orlando Downtown Marriott, the Metropolitan Bureau of Investigation decided to act on its two-year investigation dubbed “Operation Weekly Shame.”
The day had been going well, with more than 350 job-seekers visiting 17 vendors in hopes of a better career. But just before 1 p.m., a group of five men in black shirts, with “sheriff” printed in yellow down their long sleeves, barged in.
Outside the Marriott local TV news crews hurried to set up their shots. They had been tipped off by the MBI and told when and where to show up. Inside the officers started asking for Weekly classified director Jarrell Martin, who goes by the name Brian, and account executives Katherine Miller and Christopher Whiting. Officers reportedly pointed at the arrest warrants, then stuck them back in their pockets, before coming around the entry tables to grab and handcuff the three newspaper employees. In five minutes they were gone. (All three refused to comment for this story on the advice of counsel.)
“They arrested all three of them,” says Weekly classified account executive Erica Dudley. “There were vendors out there looking, job seekers out there looking.”
Account executive Jon Strubel says there were at least 40 people in the lobby who witnessed the fracas.
Miller, Whiting and Martin were each charged with counts of deriving support from the proceeds of prostitution and aiding in the commission of prostitution. All three work selling classified ads.
After the MBI left with their targets, reporters approached the remaining account executives – Dudley, Strubel and Sean Stewart – with insistent questions about their alleged support of prostitution. They did not comment.
“Were you told to say ‘no comment’?” asked Robert Maxwell, a WFTV-Channel 9 reporter. “Off the record, do you condone prostitution?”
“No, we just have no comment,” they replied.
Maxwell dispensed with journalistic ethics altogether and pronounced Martin guilty on the spot. “So why are you selling ads for prostitution when you know it’s illegal?” he shouted as Martin was led to a waiting car. “Care to comment? Anything to say at all?” (Channel 9 managing editor Joel Davis did not respond to calls for comment on Maxwell’s interviewing techniques for this story.)
It was television Orlando viewers have seen again and again: the MBI making a splashy bust, the culmination of an undercover investigation with a catchy name – in this case “Operation Weekly Shame” – with the bad guys led away in handcuffs.
On TV it appears that the men and women of this multi-agency task force spend their days and nights trying to rid Central Florida of sex crimes and drugs. But the reality of the agency doesn’t live up to the televised image – it’s not even close.
The MBI has a jaw-dropping list of transgressions stretching back to its inception in 1978. A short list of the agency’s early misdeeds includes getting a gang member and drug dealer released from prison early to serve as a snitch; allowing a teenage informant to turn tricks and deal drugs under their watch; and having sex with informants. More recently, undercover MBI agents have sexually harassed strippers, destroyed evidence, orchestrated and videotaped live sex shows, and jailed women for selling commonly available porno videos.
The MBI is an inept, inefficient police organization answerable to no one. Its managers will not return phone calls. It dodges records requests. The agency’s website and official letterhead don’t even say where its own offices are located.
And if you dare confront the agency on their appalling record, they will try to put you out of business.
SWINGS AND MISSES
The MBI was founded in December 1978, and began using legally questionable tactics shortly thereafter.
The first decade of misdeeds was chronicled by the Orlando Sentinel in the late 1980s. In 1981, the MBI arrested 10 men on charges of running a football gambling ring, but much of the evidence against the 10 was thrown out because of an MBI screw-up – a judge had granted the MBI permission to tap one phone as part of the investigation, but the MBI tapped two. None of the defendants went to jail.
Between 1981 and 1986, the MBI paid an informant $30,000 to rat out drug dealers, but while on the agency’s payroll, the man routinely supplied drugs to a teenage girl, wrote bad checks, was charged with aggravated assault and sold drugs to an undercover MBI agent.
In 1983, the MBI infiltrated a nuclear protest group of teachers and religious leaders.
In May 1984, a teenager set up a client who sold her an ounce of cocaine, but a judge tossed the charges after ruling that she had entrapped him with free sex the night before. The teenager told the Sentinel that the MBI used her only to bust small-time dealers.
In 1988, an Orange County circuit judge accused MBI agents of lying and covering up an informant’s burglary to get evidence for what was at the time one of the agency’s largest pot busts – a 400-pound marijuana seizure captured by MBI-alerted local TV news cameras.
In 1984, the MBI also petitioned a judge to release Outlaws motorcycle gang member and major drug dealer Robert “Bad Bob” Bennett early from a 20-year prison sentence to help them nab small-time dealers. In September 1985 a judge threw out drug-related charges against five defendants based on Bennett’s information, because the MBI’s deal lessened Bennett’s jail sentence in exchange for “productivity,” which, according to a judge, would lead the MBI to “manufacture rather than detect crime.”
In 1985, the agency enlisted Donna Jean Gallagher, an alleged drug dealer, as an informant. She later claimed that she stole cocaine during MBI investigations to feed a habit agents knew about but did nothing to stop, was gang-raped by drug dealers while working for the agency and had sex with two of her supervising agents. The agents were later fired.
In 1986, as then-MBI director Dennis Dayle stepped down, the Sentinel reported that his two-year tenure the agency “failed to obtain any major results” from drug investigations. Under Dayle’s tenure, however, the MBI did put resources into investigating gambling at a golf tournament that benefited a college scholarship fund. The agency also recruited two 14-year-olds to buy lewd greeting cards from the Infinite Mushroom.
Bill Lutz, the current director who also served in that position in the late 1980s, didn’t fare much better. He dedicated 25 agents and $20,000 to a four-month investigation of escort services that netted 16 misdemeanor arrests and no jail time in 1986. A judge did shut down two escort agencies’ telephones, and the MBI declared victory. Comparatively, in 1977 the Orlando Police Department, using half the number of officers, shut down two escort services in one night, according to the Sentinel. The Lutz-led MBI also botched an investigation into a gay prostitution ring. Rather than making arrests after the johns paid for sex, the MBI encouraged the gay prostitutes to have sex while they videotaped. But prosecutors dropped the charges in January 1988 because, in Lutz’s words, the tape “had no jury appeal and was traumatic for agents to sit through.”
Since the MBI’s funding comes from Orlando and Orange County – although the agency’s personnel is derived from local, state and federal police agencies – the MBI must continually prove its worth. And it does that with highly publicized arrests. Around Christmas 2001, hooded MBI agents publicly raided Cleo’s nightclub on South Orange Blossom Trail based on a sting and the sketchy testimony of a 21-year-old stripper who had sold undercover agents cocaine. The stripper, Pallis May Paulk, snitched on other girls and accused the club’s manager of attempting to sell $1.5 million in heroin, all to avoid a lengthy prison sentence. Then she contradicted herself – the manager “didn’t let anybody too much touch his heroin.” Later, Paulk signed an affidavit saying she made everything up under MBI pressure, and then she vanished. The MBI tried to use her testimony to get the club closed. It failed, and in August 2003 the agency ended up settling with Cleo’s for $35,000, a slap on the wrist for owner Gerald Uranick.
But the MBI doesn’t take its repeated failures lightly, and it’s nothing if not vindictive, as the owners of Jerry’s General Store on East Colonial Drive discovered.
In 1987, the MBI arrested Jerry’s founder Jerry Cooper, who died in 2000, for selling adult material. The charges were dropped in 1990. Cooper was outraged, and responded by producing a poster depicting then-MBI director Joe Cocchiarella poring over seized pornographic material alongside a shot of Nazis doing the same thing 60 years earlier. Cooper also encouraged his customers to call Cocchiarella and complain about the MBI’s attempted censorship.
In November 2002, two days before Thanksgiving, agents arrested three women who worked at Jerry’s. The women, one of whom was 75 years old, were charged with distributing obscenity and racketeering and were hit with bonds of $50,000 each, a figure 25 to 50 times higher than that typically assessed burglars or car thieves. The agency went to great lengths to ensure that the three remained in jail over Thanksgiving; the MBI attorney didn’t inform the store’s attorney which judge would hear the bail-reduction hearing, and they produced a seven-page memo arguing that the women needed to stay in jail.
Once again, the MBI lost. In June 2003, a judge threw out charges of operating an adult business without a license, in part because the law is so vague. (Under county law, a store can sell adult material without a license as long as non-adult materials constitute a “substantial portion” of the business’ sales. But the county doesn’t specify what comprises a “substantial portion.”)
After the MBI took a drubbing in the local media for arresting the three, it dropped the charges against Eileen Hart, the 75-year-old woman. But the agency wasn’t done with Jerry’s. It took the unprecedented step of filing tax evasion charges against the store, even though that is typically the Florida Department of Revenue’s terrain. The Revenue Department typically works with businesses to settle tax discrepancies. Owner Roxie Hanna eventually pleaded guilty to not paying $3,000 in sales taxes.
The MBI still wasn’t done. In December 2004, Hanna announced that Jerry’s was closing. According to Hanna, the MBI contacted the sister of the property owner from whom Jerry’s rented space, threatening legal action if the property owner didn’t terminate the lease.
Between 1994 and 2003, the MBI worked tirelessly to shut down Valentine’s Escort Service under the claim that it was a front for prostitution, eventually bringing charges against proprietor Vicky Gallas for racketeering and deriving profits from prostitution. But in December 2003, after a two-week trial, a jury found her not guilty. MBI director Lutz blamed the jury for not understanding “what goes on in a vice subculture.”
Gallas filed a lawsuit claiming malicious prosecution. She said MBI agents lied on their arrest affidavit and used threats and coercion to extract confessions and plea deals from targets. Her lawsuit was dismissed in January 2004. Interestingly enough, Gallas’ criminal case file has vanished from Orange County records; all that’s left is the prosecution’s version of events.
Then there’s Rachel’s Gentlemen’s Club, perhaps the agency’s biggest debacle to date. Over six months, the MBI spent $193,000 pursuing racketeering charges against the owners of the three strip bars. Ultimately they only managed to coax low-level employees into breaking club rules.
MBI agents paid strippers $7,000 each to make out, perform cunnilingus and penetrate each other with a strap-on dildo in a limousine outside the club, a performance they recorded, and paid bouncers $400 to look the other way. But the agency was unable to prove that the brothers who owned Rachel’s, Jim and Charlie Veigle, knew about and condoned illegal activity. Strippers even told agents they feared the Veigles would find out.
An MBI officer poses for a quick photo. Paul Winsett was suspended for 32 hours for taking this picture on an MBI phone.
During the investigation, MBI agent Paul Winsett was videotaped rubbing the inside of a stripper’s thigh. Then he gushed to a fellow agent, on tape, “I’m going to end up fucking this girl. If not here, somewhere else.” He also bragged on surveillance tapes recorded during the investigation that he had an erection that he didn’t think would ever go away. He boasted that working strip clubs was “one of the benefits of the job.”
On July 20, 2000, the MBI raided the two Rachel’s clubs within its jurisdiction (the third is in Palm Bay). As is MBI practice, the media was alerted ahead of time so cameras could be stationed outside. Thirty Rachel’s employees were arrested and convicted. Only one served prison time.
The MBI charged Jim Veigle with racketeering and deriving profits from prostitution. The Florida Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco tried to take Rachel’s liquor license. The city of Casselberry suspended its business license for two years. In July 2003, Veigle accepted a plea agreement. The two corporations that owned Rachel’s were fined $620,000. Veigle, the target of the MBI’s investigation, was exonerated. The $700,000 that the state attorney general’s office seized from Rachel’s had to be returned, because the MBI was unable to link the Veigles to ill-gotten profits.
In early 2002, the Casselberry Rachel’s reopened. It is thriving today.
Evidence emerged that while prosecuting the case in October 2001, the MBI’s prosecutor, Kellie Tomeo, and Winsett breached a suspect’s attorney-client privilege by illegally videotaping a meeting between him and his lawyer. The prosecutor resigned in November 2001. MBI director Lutz blamed Winsett for the screw-up; Winsett said the illegal move was discussed in vice meetings that included Lutz and Cocchiarella, who has since left the MBI.
(Winsett made news again in February 2007 when this newspaper reported that he took pictures of his penis on an MBI-issued cell phone and sent it to two different women with whom he was involved. One found out about the other, got upset and ratted him out to internal affairs. Even though one woman told investigators she felt threatened for going public, the MBI only gave Winsett a reprimand and 32 hours of unpaid leave.)
In 2004 the MBI went after Cleo’s again. For six months, MBI agents James Carlies and James McGriff, assigned to the MBI from the Orlando Police Department, went undercover at the strip club, becoming its most frequent patrons and dropping hundreds of dollars a night. They would give dancers $25 to sit and talk, and got the strippers drunk on shots of Hennessey and a drink called “Where the Fuck Is My Car.” Once they gained the dancers’ trust, they bought small amounts of drugs and rewarded strippers who arranged deals with huge tips. In November 2004, agents arrested 52 employees and patrons on charges that ranged from public nudity to drug dealing. After the media blitz subsided, most of those arrested got off with minor infractions. Cleo’s remains open today. The MBI spent $27,562 on the operation.
But as only Orlando Weekly reported, the investigation opened a window into the agency’s unethical tactics. According to one stripper’s sworn statement, one of the agents showed her his penis, which she described in remarkable detail. The agents admitted to blowing on stripper’s vaginas – in a deposition they said that was because the vaginas smelled – and to drinking during the investigation, though they claimed to remain sober. The dancers said Carlies and McGriff would put their hands on their crotches, grab their breasts and buttocks, pull on the entertainers’ panties and trip the dancers so that they fell into the agents’ laps.
Two dancers passed lie detector tests supporting their stories. OPD’s internal affairs department dismissed the tests, and refused club attorney Steve Mason’s request that the agency do its own lie detector test if it didn’t trust the original results. (Full disclosure: Mason has been retained to represent the three Orlando Weekly employees.) OPD ruled that the agents’ conduct was not improper. Mason took the case the Orlando’s Citizens Police Review Board in December 2006. The CPRB ruled that OPD’s investigation was deficient and asked the agency to perform lie detector tests on the girls and to reopen the investigation. OPD declined. In a January 2007 memo, an assistant city attorney decided that boys will be boys and any further investigation would be a waste of time.
The MBI also destroyed records that it may have been required to keep, although no one except this newspaper and Cleo’s attorney Mason has pursued this issue. Their case was built around reports Carlies and McGriff wrote, describing in detail what they saw at Cleo’s. Those reports were compiled from voicemail messages the agents left themselves while at Cleo’s.
But the club is extraordinarily loud; so loud, in fact, that the MBI opted against using the audio tapes during the investigation because they couldn’t make out what was being said. Also, Carlies and McGriff admitted to drinking beer and liquor in an effort to fit in. Thus, the entire case was built around audio messages that may or may not have been discernible, left by agents who may or may not have been drunk. It’s reasonable to think that the club’s attorney would want to hear the tapes to get a picture of the case against his client. But the MBI decided they were irrelevant and destroyed them, despite the fact that Florida law mandates any voicemail messages related to the substance of an investigation must be preserved for four years.
Further, the MBI also refused to turn over videotapes of the investigation to Cleo’s attorneys without first editing them at a cost of $175 per hour. That prompted a public records lawsuit, which is still pending. Cleo’s also filed and won a federal lawsuit challenging the legality of Orange County’s adult-entertainment code.
Orlando Weekly first reported on the Cleo’s investigation Sept. 22, 2005. According to media reports, the agency initiated Operation Weekly Shame two years ago, which would date it to October 2005. Lutz told the Orlando Sentinel, “I don’t see a First Amendment issue here. This is strictly an advertising company making money off of prostitution.”
WHY THE WEEKLY?
Lutz told the media that Orlando Weekly had ceased being cooperative with the agency in its requests to purge alleged prostitutes from the paper’s classified advertisements. According to Lutz, during the two-year investigation MBI agents posed as prostitutes and sought to place ads explicitly offering illegal prostitution services. The MBI claims that it recorded those conversations, and that those conversations reveal that Weekly employees knew the ads were for prostitution and changed the ads’ language to obscure that fact.
Martin, Whiting and Miller were charged with deriving proceeds from prostitution and aiding and abetting prostitution. The MBI also got a grand-jury indictment for criminal racketeering against the newspaper.
The MBI had obtained the indictment at some point prior to Sept. 28, according to a letter agency commander Paul Zambouros sent Craigslist.org asking the Internet company to remove its Erotic Services section. The agency, however, waited three weeks, until Orlando Weekly employees were attending a public function on Oct. 19, before making the arrests and serving the paper with a notice of the racketeering charges.
“This is outrageous,” says local free-speech attorney Marc Randazza of the firm Weston, Garrou, DeWitt & Walters. “This is bad if the state gets away with it.”
In March and June of this year, the MBI sent Orlando Weekly a list of about 80 classified advertisers whom the MBI alleged to be involved in prostitution. Some of the arrests made in these cases date back to February 2003. Most involved massage parlors, although a few fell into the category “adult services.”
No matter where the ads fall in the paper, they aren’t illegal, says Orlando Weekly publisher Rick Schreiber. “We will only publish ads that contain lawful content.”
Schreiber says the Weekly cooperated with the MBI and pulled all ads that the agency had flagged. “We went through the paper and made sure not to run ads in the adult services section that were on the list the MBI provided,” he says.
The three Orlando Weekly employees who were arrested declined to discuss the specifics of their cases, and much of the evidence against them has yet to become public. However, a cursory two-day investigation by Orlando Weekly revealed that many local publications and websites carry similar ads. In fact, some of the exact same companies that appear on the list of advertisers the MBI claimed were involved in prostitution still advertise in other publications.
Since at least September, a company called Natural Therapies has placed line advertisements in the Orlando Sentinel. Since 2005, three of its employees have been arrested for prostitution and performing unlicensed massages, according to MBI records. That company is still open for business, and Orlando Weekly still runs its ads because it still holds a license, says Schreiber.
Avalon Massage, a company that had one employee arrested for giving an unlicensed massage, continues to advertise in the BellSouth and Embarq business directories. Its advertisements tout “showers” and promise a “female staff.” BellSouth’s business directory also runs ads from Aloha Massage, which has had two employees arrested by the MBI since 2003 (one for giving an unlicensed massage, another for prostitution).
The Sentinel typically has between three and eight certified massage line ads daily. On Oct. 5, the paper ran an ad promising “Massage – ebony hands, out calls only.” On Oct. 19, the Sentinel ran an ad for “AAA Massage – female staff. FL Mall area.”
Sentinel spokeswoman Lisa Jacobsen says the paper has strict policies regarding such ads. “We would never knowingly accept advertising which violates any municipal, state or federal law,” Jacobsen wrote in an e-mail. “In addition, the Sentinel will not accept any advertisement which, in our judgment, is indecent, salacious, suggestive or offensive. It’s clearly stated in our rate card that we reserve the right to accept or reject any advertisement.
“The Orlando Sentinel does not accept advertisements for escorts or escort services. With respect to massage-related advertising, an ad placed by an individual or business that offers massage services must present to the Sentinel a copy of its license from the State of Florida before an advertisement will publish.”
The gay biweekly Watermark features explicit ads under its “personal services” section, including: “BODY RUBS BY SMOOTH HOT BOI – Get a Body rub by slim, tan, smooth, boi in the buff. See my happy trail to make you happy” and “HOT STUD 2 HELP YOU RELEASE.” Publisher Tom Dyer did not return a phone call asking if he’s been contacted by the MBI.
The Sept. 28-Oct. 5 issue of the Orlando Post features a classified ad in the adult services section headlined, “PLEASURE NEEDED? Hot tanned sweet beauty waiting to tease and please YOU!” And another: “FORGET THE rest … call the best! … Stripper, dancing, fantasies, modeling, role-playing. Generous gentleman, Discreet encounters.” No one could be reached at the Post for comment.
In its Aug. 23-Sept. 5 issue, the Orlando Tribune published an adult services ad reading, “Sensual brunette would love for you to treat your self to a soft relaxation session. OUT CALLS ONLY!!!” As of Oct. 22, the Orlando Tribune’s phone number had been disconnected.
WFTV-Channel 9’s website aggregates classified ads from across the Internet; as of Oct. 22, the site shows a classified ad for a “drive-through massage parlour” and another from a man selling himself as an “unselfish massage toy for your pleasure.”
Similarly, the Orlando Sentinel’s website aggregates ads, some of which are racy, such as one advertising a male escort from New Jersey who, for $150 an hour, offers “transsexuals and bottoms and tops, curious straight all the above.” Another bears the headline, “Looking for a young escort girl in ORLANDO.” It promises “good payment.” Orlandosentinel.com also features ads from Natural Therapies and several other massage services.
The BellSouth business directory has 17 listings and two display ads under its “Entertainment – Adult” category. It has dozens more listings and 20 display ads under the “massage therapist” category, including three companies who were on the flag list the MBI provided to Orlando Weekly.
The Embarq business directory has 44 listings and 16 ads in its “entertainment – other” category. One promises “Orlando’s most beautiful and sophisticated female entertainers.” Another promises dancers and adult entertainment. Under Embarq’s “massage” category, there are 14 listings with such names as “A Bodyrub by Brittney.” The licensed massage category has dozens of listings and 40 paid ads. The category “massage therapy” has 33 listings from such businesses as “A Always Available Private Body Rubs and More” and “Absolute Pleasure Massage.”
Neither BellSouth nor Embarq returned phone calls seeking comment on their adult ad policies or whether or not they’d been contacted by the MBI.
There is no indication that any of the companies listed above have any connection to prostitution. But the fact that the MBI has pursued charges against Orlando Weekly, which has written critically of the agency in recent years, but has not gone after other publications and websites that carry the same types of advertising lends credence to the idea that the MBI is engaged in retaliation. It wouldn’t be the first time. (MBI director Lutz declined to answer questions sent to his office for this story, saying it would be inappropriate to do so because the agency is prosecuting the newspaper.)
Of course, what runs in the back of this publication is demonstrably tame compared to what a quick search of Craigslist turns up. “Full service, tell me your needs wants and desires100 hr,” one says. Another, a “White Hot Boy for your manly pleasures,” is “wide open for incalls ” for $250 an hour. Yet another promises, “50 Kisses get your oral on (have your toes curling and you reaching for things that ain’t even there.)” One hundred “kisses” gets you full service.
The MBI has told local media that they cannot prosecute Craigslist because that site operates out of San Francisco. Instead of brandishing handcuffs, Zambouros asked nicely: “It would be a great example of corporate stewardship on your behalf if I could point out that Craigslist Incorporated did the right thing … and denied the escort service industry their main source of advertising by removing a category that was supporting criminal activity.”
Craigslist has not answered the MBI’s request.